La Vita Bella

Private public ponderings

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Traverse City: What the Truck?

OK, Traverse City, let’s have a heart-to-heart. For the past several weeks, I’ve been following a growing debate among various bodies of local leadership about what to do with food trucks in the community. This is not the first time this topic has made the rounds in TC. Several months ago, the City Commission made the decision - based partially on input from the DDA - to double the daily vending rates in peak season in the downtown district, from $50 to $100 a day. These fees were considerably more relaxed outside of downtown, but as anyone who has sold $3 tacos from a cart can tell you, that price hike essentially made it prohibitive for transient vendors to operate in the DDA district. Which, for all intents and purposes, was likely the goal.

Not everyone agreed that downtown should be the exclusive domain of brick-and-mortar businesses, however, and so critics of the fee structure have grown increasingly vocal in challenging the City and DDA to reconsider the policy over the last several months. That criticism gained traction, and now an ad hoc committee of the City Commission has taken up the issue, again turning to the DDA for input. On Friday morning (February 15), the DDA board will vote on whether or not to make a recommendation to the City Commission on transient and mobile food vendors, particularly as it relates to locations downtown where they might operate. From there, the City Commission will consider that and other aspects of the mobile vending policy, such as fee structures and the number of vendors allowed downtown.

I’ve been following this issue from both a concerned citizen and intrigued journalist perspective for some time now. Because of the journalism aspect, I have both a) undertaken considerable research on the topic, talking to many of the parties involved and reviewing case studies and national data on mobile vending trends, and b) have felt it necessary to keep my opinions mostly to myself, outside of the occasional 1 a.m. bar ramblings to a friend. However, as the debate heats up, and city governmental bodies begin making decisions that could have long-term repercussions for the community, I wanted to share some thoughts on some problematic issues I’ve observed during this process (which has been complicated, as happens with many policy processes in Traverse City, by a heady mix of protectionism and fear of the unknown).

A quick disclaimer before we begin: Common public perception has it that reporters must be unquestionably objective on every subject on which they report, a notion I personally find unrealistic, and to be honest, a bit absurd. Journalists aren’t robots; we have opinions on almost everything, just as everyone else does. The important caveat is that a journalist - at least a good one - will make sure their writing does not become a conduit for their own personal agenda. A good journalist will check, and then recheck, themselves throughout their writing process to ensure editorializing does not sneak into a non-editorial medium. My personal blog is a decidedly editorial medium. But when writing elsewhere, I subscribe to The Newsroom maxim: Do your damndest to represent everyone’s clearest, best arguments, and let the readers decide for themselves where they stand. When covering the food truck issue for local press, that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do - but here I hope I can be more candid.

The single greatest force of resistance to allowing food trucks and other transient vendors downtown seems to originate from brick-and-mortar businesses - or those defending brick-and-mortar businesses - who see mobile vending as a threat to the sustainability of those businesses, a source of “unfair competition.” The unfair aspect originates in the belief that brick-and-mortar businesses (let’s call them BAMs from here on out, for simplicity’s sake) have operational costs and regulations that mobile vendors do not. A BAM pays for property taxes and utilities, invests in their building, pays for year-round staff, and so forth. Costs and regulations incurred by mobile vendors themselves - the cost of the trucks or carts, the cost of storing the trucks or carts, installing commercial-grade mobile kitchens, paying for staff and inventory, paying for gas and electricity, meeting the same health code and insurance regulations BAMs must meet, etc - have been characterized as trivial compared to BAMs’ investments.

This is one area where the debate for me sours. It reflects either an unwillingness to engage in equitable comparisons to operational costs versus profits across the spectrum (BAM may have x overhead a day, but also has x profit), or simply shows an unfamiliarity with costs and regulations outside one’s own business model. No one disputes mobile vending is a cheaper entrepreneurial start-up than a BAM, but then again, a mobile vendor doesn’t necessarily have the same potential profit yield of most BAMs. Selecting one model over the other is an entrepreneurial decision, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Most critics of mobile vending I’ve spoken with, however, have dismissed out-of-hand the costs and challenges associated with being a mobile vendor versus a BAM, and have focused instead on the perceived astronomical advantages mobile vendors have.

Which brings me to the next issue: Mobile vendors, in most regards, do not have astronomical advantages over BAMs. They have perhaps two distinct advantages I can see, inherent in their design: They are mobile, and they are less expensive to operate than a BAM. BAMs have their own unique advantages, of course. They have seating. They traditionally have higher profit margins (more expensive products + greater capacity to distribute those products). They are protected against the elements and weather that affect mobile vendors. They have an environment in which people can gather and linger, ordering additional products as they do so. They have bathrooms. They have ambiance. They are destinations.

Food trucks and mobile vendors, however, are designed for grab-and-go dining. They typically offer cheap or low-cost food. They are not a place you go to celebrate a birthday with 10 friends, or have an important business lunch. They don’t offer bathrooms, or environmental ambiance (though many look great!). They are limited in the products they can offer - typically, whatever can be produced in a mobile kitchen, and without a liquor license. They are, essentially, an entirely different creature than a BAM, serving an entirely different audience. Some days you feel like having a five-course journey through gastronomical heaven at Red Ginger. Other days you feel like grabbing a cheap fish taco and going back home to sleep off your hangover. Those needs represent two different consumers, with two different desires. Why can’t we have two different kinds of businesses servicing those demographics?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest source of BAM criticism has come from restaurants whose models are closer in nature to those of food trucks - those whose clients right now may not have many alternatives in that niche, and who suspect (likely correctly) that their days of competition-free business ownership will be threatened with the introduction of mobile vending. The most vocal critics at a recent DDA study session on food trucks were the owners of House of Doggs, J&S Hamburg and U&I Lounge. Now first off, it’s important I note that I love and eat at all of these places on a regular basis. I appreciate a 2am hot dog, affordable Greek gyro and delicious, cheap cheeseburger as much as the next person. But as a consumer, I find myself questioning my loyalty to a business when I hear that business’ owner essentially demand that other vendors - who wish to offer products in a similar price point or at a similar time of day (read: late night) - be banned from competing with them, simply because they’d rather customers be forced to give them their business. That kind of rationale gives me serious pause about patronizing those businesses going forward, food truck alternatives or not, because the modus operandi of a consumer in a capitalistic society is almost always choice. When a business starts limiting a customer’s options to protect its own financial interests, rather than choosing to elevate its game or collaborate with other vendors or convince the customer it deserves their support, the customer’s desire to be a loyal patron understandably wanes. Suddenly, coming to that restaurant anymore no longer feels like the customer’s decision. It feels like the restaurant’s.

I’m not unsympathetic to the stresses, physical and financial, of running a restaurant. I deeply and genuinely want to support these downtown companies, as I’ve done now for many years. But having supported these companies for many years, I know that my business - and that of other customers - will not immediately vaporize with the introduction of a handful of food trucks downtown. J&S Hamburg is not going out of business after 75 years because someone else decides to sell falafel wraps. If someone else decides to sell $5 burgers, and customers begin going there instead of J&S for quality or taste or convenience factors, I suspect J&S will quickly learn how to make a better $5 burger and compete. That’s the nature of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is really at the heart of this discussion, in the end. I find it puzzling that businesses who often complain about government regulation or intervention are now asking that same government to step in and protect them from marketplace competition. This is the question I’ve struggled with most in reporting on this issue, one that I’ve asked of nearly every business owner I’ve spoken with: In a capitalistic, entrepreneurial society, what rational grounds can you point to for preventing someone else from entering your market and competing? City attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht has already cautioned the DDA and the City that the answer to that question is essentially “none” - removing or limiting food trucks “merely to prevent economic competition” with BAMs does not comply with legal precedent, she said, and could leave the city vulnerable to litigation.

The best response I’ve heard to that question when asking a BAM owner has essentially been that mobile vendors don’t have to play by the same rules, thereby they have an unfair business advantage over BAMs. But for the reasons outlined above, I simply can’t find enough reasonable evidence to substantiate that claim. What I have most commonly encountered instead are a chorus of hypothetical scenarios, representing the worst-case fears of BAMs and the consumers who support them. “Food trucks will only come in the summer and skim off all our best business, then skip town!” “There will be 10 hot dog stands lining Front Street!” “It will look like a cheap carnival downtown!” “There will be nowhere to park. Trucks will take all our spots!”

None of these scenarios, as best I can tell, are based in realistic market or operational conditions (as much as I would love to spend an entire afternoon taste-testing 10 different hot dog stands on Front Street, the market here would never support more than, say, one). Furthermore, all of these scenarios can be addressed through reasonable regulations and ordinances. In fact, some are addressed already in the recommendation before the DDA: Mobile vendors voluntarily banned themselves from Front Street between Boardman and Union (unquestionably prime vending real estate, and where many of downtown’s BAMs are located), and restricted themselves 20 feet from all intersections for safety and traffic reasons. The City Commission has the ability, if it so chooses, to allocate a certain number of permits for downtown, or for certain blocks or parks. Reasonable discussions can be had on all these fronts to ensure the aesthetics and traffic flow of downtown are preserved.

In terms of year-round operations - Simon Joseph, owner of TC food truck Roaming Harvest, is already running a permanent year-round business, operating in both blizzards and boiling sun in front of Right Brain Brewery and out on Eighth Street. Gary & Allison Jonas, who are opening a new bar in the former Jack’s Market building on Front Street this spring, are planning to open their parking lot to up to five food trucks at a time - all of which will be full-time, year-round vendors. I suspect many other mobile vendors who dream of being a part of the culinary landscape in this community and are willing to put their life savings on the line to do so also envision themselves becoming a permanent part of the local economy.

So, if we removed the “seasonal” aspect of mobile vendors, would BAMs still object to their presence? I suspect the answer is yes, because that argument can only fairly be seen as a deflection from the true heart of food truck resistance: Economic competition. Food trucks are being characterized in an exaggerated and unflattering light - I’ve heard people use the term “transients” in the same distasteful tone as “renters” was used a few years back when we were talking about ADUs and affordable housing - to alarm the consumer into opposing their presence. Accusations are being made that the trucks will look cheap (have you seen Roaming Harvest’s truck, or Porterhouse Production’s 1940’s food truck Curbie? They look, frankly, kick-ass), or that the food will be low-quality (again, see above examples - plus, in a town with this many choices, the market would quickly eliminate mediocre vendors). Even when faced with the prospect of a beautiful food truck owned by a local entrepreneur serving high-quality food on a year-round basis, critics retreat and resort to: “Well - we have enough restaurants already! We don’t need anymore. We’re not Austin or Portland - we’re Traverse City! Leave well enough alone.”

And part of that is true. We’re not Austin. We’re not Portland. We’re Traverse City. But we are Traverse City, now, existing in the year 2013. We are not the honeyed, sleepy-eyed resort town of some halcyon 1970s summer camp fantasy. This town has grown up. This town has gotten older, bigger, loftier and noisier with each passing year. This town has become known; it is no longer our private paradisaical secret. When Michael Moore is running your local movie theater and Mario Batali is name-dropping you in The New York Times and Good Morning America is calling your backyard the most beautiful place in the country, it’s time to give up the small-town ghost and embrace the progressive, visionary, dazzling potential your beloved city has to offer. And that potential must be, above all things, inclusive. It must be forward-thinking. It can’t just protect; it must also embrace.

I love the restaurants of downtown Traverse City. I love our BAMs. But just as I’ve supported them - will continue to support them - I look forward to supporting our food trucks as well. We may not be a bustling cosmopolitan city, but we are a city nonetheless, and a city that deserves a culture where entrepreneurs from all different business models and visions and walks of life are invited to participate - where consumers have choice, and businesses have healthy competition. It’s our next greatest chance at continuing the vibrancy and creative, thoughtful growth that has made - and continues to make - this community such a wonderful place for all of us to live.

Filed under food trucks traverse city michigan entrepreneur business downtown restaurant foodie

  1. idealisticsun reblogged this from bethmilligan and added:
    A hugely interesting article about my hometown and its culinary atmosphere. Traverse City is well on its way to being...
  2. kakiphony reblogged this from bethmilligan
  3. bethmilligan posted this